At the beginning of the twentieth century, to be a progressive, right-thinking American intellectual was to believe in the genetic superiority of certain racial groups. Otherwise known as eugenics or race science, the idea that races can be readily sorted along an immutable biological hierarchy had far-reaching policy implications, from marriage laws to immigration, and heavily influenced the racial policies of Nazi Germany. The logical conclusion of the belief that racial groups were inherently distinct from one another was that societal disparities between them must be a consequence of nature, rather than the results of a complex tangle of socioeconomic, cultural, historical and other demographic forces. At the time, to offer a critique of the prevailing vision of race, such as those made by Franz Boas and G. K. Chesterton, could have resulted in social stigma and opened up the critic to the charge of being on the wrong side of history.
What is considered progress at a given point in history can, with the passage of time and the advent of better information, come to look like the opposite. Nowhere is that juxtaposition more stark than on the loaded subject of race in America.
In their book Racecraft: The Soul Of Inequality In American Life, Karen and Barbara Fields argue that, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t the fact of race that creates the phenomenon of racism, but the historical development of racism that advances the notion of race. In other words, distrust and hostility towards nonwhite groups arose in the early colonies to vindicate those groups’ economic subjugation, and the belief in essential races of people was the cultural legacy of that dynamic. The term racecraft refers to all the ways in which we uphold the psycho-social construct of race, from subtle acts of projection to overt discrimination and brutal suppression. “Disguised as race, racism becomes something Afro-Americans are, rather than something racists do.” The one-drop rule under the systems of slavery and Jim Crow—whereby a drop of African blood made a person socially black even if their ancestry was largely European—is a clear example of the mental contortions necessary for racecraft.
Of course, it’s normal to notice when someone has a different skin color or hair texture from oneself (even infants notice this), and the idea of race is by no means a modern invention: discussions of race stretch back to ancient Greece and Rome and are part of the intellectual traditions of other civilizations, such as China and India. But the specific social significance injected into those superficial differences is part of the unique heritage of modern Americans. When we look at race through a sociological microscope, isolating it from other associated factors such as culture, ethnic background, national identity and politics—we are left with almost nothing of any meaning or value: it refers to the general region of the world most of a person’s recent ancestors came from and may imply a heightened or reduced risk of certain medical conditions at the margins. But race itself has no human weight.
Anti-racist proponents of the racecraft hypothesis, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, use it to attack the idea that racial disparities between white and black Americans are a result of internal group factors, as opposed to racist power and oppression. If race is downstream from racism, then racial inequality must be a consequence of racist policies and practices, since, in this view, racial disparities can only be caused by either white racism or black inferiority.
But the widespread progressive tendency to bundle together disparate ethnic groups, compare their outcomes on various metrics, and ascribe the difference to racism is its own version of racecraft. The limitations of this approach become clear when it is applied to any other disparity between two groups, such as the almost ten-year gap in life expectancy that advantages Asian-Americans over white Americans. It would be bizarre to claim that thousands upon thousands of whites would still be alive if only they had been Asian—even though the facts could be framed that way.
The progressive narrative on racism actually preserves the belief in distinct races of people with their own respective essences. I call this phenomenon progressive racecraft.
Progressive racecraft has two central manifestations: defending the use of racial categories in order to identify racism, and blurring the line between skin color and cultural norms in order to condemn appropriation. Let’s look at one example of each. In his book How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi argues against the idea of rejecting one’s whiteness or blackness by appealing to the logic of privilege and power: “Race is a mirage but one that humanity has organized itself around in very real ways. Imagining away the existence of races in a racist world is as conserving and harmful as imagining away classes in a classist world—it allows the ruling races and classes to keep on ruling.”
To Kendi, downplaying race is the same as denying the impacts of racism. But if belief in race is intimately tied up with racism, then Kendi’s logic is circular. Defending racial categorizations in the name of mitigating racism is like defending the distribution of deadly weapons in the name of mitigating murder. If racism created race, then “unlearning race,” as Thomas Chatterton Williams argues in his book of the same name, is a necessary step toward mitigating racism in society.
Coates offers an example of the second kind of progressive racecraft in a viral video from 2017 entitled “When Every Word Doesn’t Belong to Everyone” in which he argues against white people’s use of the N-word while reciting rap lyrics:
When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have the right to everything. You’re conditioned this way, it’s not cause your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s because the laws of the culture tell you this. For white people, the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word “nigga” is actually very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black.
The implication is that hip-hop belongs to black Americans in a way that it doesn’t belong to other groups, and whites who want to participate are just acting entitled as a consequence of their historic privilege. But the sentiment that whites don’t really get hip-hop is thrown into sharp relief by the sea of whiteness in the crowd at almost any rap show. Artificial racial boundaries clearly don’t stop people from identifying with a culture, and a robust, pluralistic social landscape would encourage cross-cultural exchange between different groups. Whether or not it’s a good idea for anyone to use the N-word, the belief that people who look a certain way or have a certain ancestry have exclusive ownership over a given culture is reductive, essentialist, reactionary, and unsustainable in an increasingly diverse multi-ethnic and multicultural society.
White supremacy was an abomination because it ascribed moral meaning to the arbitrary and unchosen fact of skin color. Yet much of what constitutes antiracism today is effectively an inverse continuation of this misbegotten belief. We see this in the lack of emphasis on concrete policy issues and the focus on totalizing theories of whiteness, privilege and structural oppression. We see this in the conceptual expansion of the term racism from individual discriminatory behaviors to an unconscious systemic bias that is built into the edifice of society itself. We see this in the cynical tokenization of minorities to score political points. We see this in the way the racial double standards of the past are used to justify racial double standards in the present. We see this in the unwillingness to track the astounding racial progress of the past 60 years. We see this in how videos of black people being shot by police go viral, while equally gruesome videos of white people shot by police are largely ignored. We see this in the selective attribution of racial disparities between blacks and whites to antiblack racism, while neglecting disparities that run in the other direction. We see this in the progressive war against cultural appropriation that equates race with culture. We see this in the tendency to use race as a shorthand for inequalities that are not fundamentally about race.
The assumption underlying modern antiracist discourse is that racial identity per se really does matter. Moreover, it is insisted that we can’t create a better future until we come to terms with the past. But the answers to the problems of the present are not usually found in the past, otherwise they would have already been resolved: history is most useful in determining what not to do. Accounting for historical racism, then, can become an overcorrection that ultimately keeps the notion of race front and center in public life.
One recent example is a New York Times op-ed arguing against the use of blind auditions for entry into the New York Philharmonic orchestra. To preclude discrimination against historically marginalized groups by biased judges, auditions have traditionally been held behind a screen. But the relatively low proportion of black musicians in the orchestra leads the author to feel that true justice has not yet been achieved: “If the musicians onstage are going to better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, the audition process has to be altered to take into fuller account artists’ backgrounds and experiences. Removing the screen is a crucial step.” In plainspeak, if we don’t know what the artist looks like, we can’t favor members of some groups over others to bring about racial parity.
This is a direct inversion of the American humanism that our civil rights leaders advanced when they argued for the end of legalized segregation. Worse, it exposes the conflict between the race-consciousness of today’s antiracist activists and the universalism of their forebears. We’re going backwards.
Like much racialized thinking of past eras, the present narrative is obsessed with unpacking the implications of racial disparities, under the misguided assumption that disparity is itself evidence of racism and that all groups would have equal outcomes in the absence of racial bias. While progressives of the early twentieth century broached this question through the prism of genetics, progressives of the early twenty-first century broach it through the prism of historical oppression. But disparities in group outcomes—whether in terms of health, crime, wealth or education—are not necessarily a consequence of either. Virtually no two ethnic groups in human history have ever achieved exactly equal outcomes on all measures, anywhere, ever, for reasons that aren’t necessarily related to external prejudice or internal deficiency. Disparity is the norm throughout human societies.
More crucially, instituting policies that disproportionately benefit the poor and dispossessed does not require the use of racial gaps. As a study by the left-leaning People’s Policy Project shows, the vast majority of the racial wealth gap occurs between the wealthiest 10% of white and black Americans, while the bottom 90% of each group is much more similar. Poverty is poverty is poverty. Moving beyond racial thinking would mean diagnosing inequalities across the population without using race as a proxy. As Adolph Reed has written of the racial COVID disparity:
As an aggregate statistical category, black people may appear especially vulnerable on average to Covid-19, for example, in relation to some other aggregate statistical categories to the extent that individuals classified or recognized as black are disproportionately poor and beset with risk factors associated with poverty. The heightened vulnerability would not be a function of being classified as black, per se. It is easy in the dubious shorthand of our prevailing race discourse to lose sight of the reality that racism is simply and quintessentially the belief that race is not merely a statistical reification but instead refers to populations defined by actual biological difference. And that belief is quintessentially racist whether or not it is linked to claims regarding inferiority or superiority. That is, racism is the belief that race is a category that defines and encapsulates natural populations. It does not. A claim that black people are especially vulnerable, as black people, to Covid-19 or any contagion is as preposterous as a claim that unicorns are especially vulnerable.
If antiracists really believe race to be a fiction, the prospect of taking racial categories off the US Census altogether and no longer using group disparity as a yardstick for injustice should be earnestly considered. Beyond studying populations for medical and other research purposes, the system of racial categories in the US reinforces the idea that race carries implicit social significance.
The case against race has both descriptive and prescriptive components. Descriptively, racial categories are an inaccurate method of delineating groups. The category Asian-American, for example, includes 17 different ethnic groups and their descendants, from Cambodian-Americans to Indian- and Chinese-Americans, each with their own specific demographic and cultural profiles. Likewise, as Shelby Steele has observed,
When a teenager in East Los Angeles says he is Hispanic, he is thinking of himself within a group strategy pitched at larger America. His identity is related far more to America than to Mexico or Guatemala, where he would not often think of himself as Hispanic. In fact, “Hispanic” is much more a political concept than a cultural one, and its first purpose is to win power within the fray of American identity politics.
Racial categories promote thinking in terms of race. As the ethnic composition of the country rapidly changes over the coming decades, it’s imperative to consider which guiding principles will allow us to see past superficial differences and embrace what we have in common as citizens and human beings. At the moment, we’re doing a terrible job of this. We need a different vision for American society, what Ralph Ellison called a new American humanism, which views the diverse strands of American identity in positive-sum terms and rejects all forms of identity essentialism. This means dissociating the notion of race from our national culture and identity.
Of course, taking racial categories off the census won’t instantly obliterate all forms of bias, and the principle of identity-blindness can certainly become repressive if left unchecked. But that doesn’t mean that we should abandon the principle altogether. The possibility of a world in which our racial identities are socially meaningless is one worth aspiring toward, now more than ever.